it’s a hazy, chilly sunday afternoon here in gwangju. david and i are passing time by sitting on the 3rd floor of our neighborhood starbucks, reading, writing, and gazing out the windows. i can hardly believe it’s march, and that we’ve been here 7 months already. but along with that feeling also comes the thought that i can hardly believe that i will watch the seasons change here yet again, winter to spring, and then spring to summer. the days before us still seem to stretch out so endlessly sometimes.
we both had our first full week of classes this past week. kids are done with beginning-of-the-year testing, so our classes all kicked off and we were back into lesson planning and halting, limited conversations with our new coworkers. i personally had a really bizarre week this past week, and i thought that i’d share some snippets of the good, the bad, and mostly the ugly with you here.
a disclaimer: parts of this will be gross. and parts of this will be inappropriate (so if you read this blog as a sort-of bedtime story to your kids, i’d recommend you skip this particular entry).
episode 1) monday morning, i set out on my walk to school. i have a new route that i take these days that keeps me off the main roads and has me meandering down skinny side streets and passing alleyways full of clutter, rotting food, stray cats, and the occasional orange pile of ramyeon vomit drying in the early morning light. this way is a little faster, and keeps the staring eyes to a limited handful of people, although there are still the occasional gawkers.
this particular morning had me stopping at an intersection next to a little boy. his sister had crossed the street before him, so she dutifully waited on the other side for the traffic light to change, so he and i could cross. she looked me up and down with wide eyes and yelled out to her brother “WAYGOOKIN!” (foreigner). he turned and looked at me and did a startled jump before backing away with a jumbled mix of curiosity and fear. i gave a tired nod and started crossing the street. this wouldn’t be too out-of-the-ordinary except that these 2 little kids started circling me like sharks, sneaking up in front of me to peek at my face or hair, then ducking back behind me with squeaks of surprise, then coming in front again. i tried not to step on them as i continued my walk to work, and finally quickened my pace until they could no longer keep up with my monstrously long legs.
episode 2) at school on tuesday, i felt the urge to use the restroom. this is a dreaded urge for me because there is no heat in the hallways or restrooms here in korea. this results in porcaline that feels like ice on the nether regions – not to mention the non-stop shivering hands and legs, and the fact that these areas of the school are cleaned sparing (and when cleaning means a couple of kids spray down the whole place with a hose, you wonder if it is ever really sanitary at all). i reluctantly put on my coat and made the shivering sojourn to the bathroom at the end of the hall, praying that there would be toilet paper (the TP situation is very hit or miss) and that the one and only “western style” toilet would be in operation (the rest of the toilets are “squatters” and i’d rather not use them unless it’s an emergency).
i arrived and saw with relief that there was toilet paper. i grabbed some (the TP roll is outside of all the stalls, not inside the stalls. this is something you learn quickly) and flung open the door to “my” stall, the familiar toilet of the western world, looking relatively unclogged and normal. i took a step into the stall, glanced down, and then froze in bewilderment. at first, my brain couldn’t quite compute what it saw. about a foot in front of the toilet, perfectly laid on the tiled ground like a gift, was a large brown turd. i backed up in a confusion that started to turn into anger. my thoughts began racing:
who dared to poop here?
how in the world could someone come so close, and land so far?
i mean, you made it to the bathroom, you were IN the stall for heaven’s sakes, how did you miss the bowl?
you koreans are trained squatters, you’re better at this than anyone, how did you miss??
i started to think that it must’ve been an intentional turd-on-the-ground situation, and i hoped that it wasn’t directed at me: the only westerner in the place and practically the only person to use said toilet. disappointed and angry, i clenched my wad of toilet paper and left, embarking on my hurried journey to find an acceptable bathroom before my next class was set to begin.
as an addendum to the this story: i must add that when i first discovered the wayward turd, it was early morning. i came back to the same bathroom in the late afternoon, assuming that things would’ve been taken care of by then. i was wrong. the turd was still in the stall, provoking me with its appearance and location. i quickly left.
episode 3) wednesday evening, we met up with some friends for dinner at a favorite chicken place in the backgate neighborhood. this was after i’d just finished working out (and i won’t even get into the way i’m treated at the gym here, you’d think a white girl running on a treadmill would be a criminal offense by the way some of the koreans stare and move away), and david and the rest had just finished playing some frisbee, so we were all pretty hungry.
communication isn’t always the best at this place, and this time turned out to be the worst. after ordering, we requested water (물) multiple times, to multiple waiters. we finally received 1 glass of water (for the 5 of us). when we requested 5 glasses (believe it or not, we really tried to say all of this in korean) of water, a waiter instead came back with 5 empty glasses that he promptly plunked on our table and left. did he think we were going to pour the water from the 1 glass into the 5 empty ones? finally, sarah just went up to the counter to fill up her own water, which seemed to confuse one of the waiters all the more, but i must ask, what was so strange about 5 people requesting 5 waters at a restaurant that no one could get it right?
we let it go in anticipation of our delicious chicken yet to come. you win some, you lose some, right? after we finished off one plate of garlic chicken, we decided to order an additional teriyaki chicken plate. angie flagged down a waiter and ordered, requesting thigh meat and boneless teriyaki chicken. she spoke clearly, but when the waiter came back and dropped off a small dish of teriyaki sauce, we knew we’d been misunderstood yet again.
we gave up on the additional order and waited with bated breath for our last, treasured, plate to come. we’d ordered a new dish, which looked tasty in its picture on the menu. we waited. and waited. we finally asked about it, and then it appeared, in all its glory. we all dug in, taking generous bites into our mouths… which we all promptly spit out. the bits of chicken in this dish were absolutely inedible. every. last. bite. the plate was entirely made up of a rubbery, chewy, unidentifiable chicken part.
disappointed and hungry and at terrible loss for what sat before us, we decided to try and translate what it was that we had ordered. we tried to guess: was it chicken necks? intestines? feet? sarah and angie both got our their translators on their phones and typed in the korean description of the dish. and, no lie, here is the english that it gave us:
girl’s shit dreams.
that is the oh-so-appealing name of what we are attempting to eat right now? that was the name of the plate of nastiness before us? that was the last straw.
we were done and out of there in five minutes.
well, i was going to wrap up my list of ridiculousness about my week by including a few more awkward street-encounters with the elderly, but i think this post/rant has gone on long enough. suffice it to say that some aspects of korea will never make sense to us, but it also provides us with almost daily comic relief and an ever-growing appreciation for the blessings we’ve got back on the home front.